At least 18 men are expected see their convictions overturned Monday in Cook County Criminal Court. It will mark the second, and largest, mass exoneration linked to a tainted tactical unit which operated for more than a decade on Chicago’s South Side.
The newest dismissals will make a total of at least 42 individuals who even prosecutors concede were almost certainly framed by Sgt. Ronald Watts and his tactical team at the Ida B. Wells housing project.
“We continue to hear that many of these arrests were purely conjured,” said Mark Rotert, the Chief of the State’s Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit. “They were basically arresting people and framing them or were claiming that they were involved in drug offenses that either didn’t occur or didn’t occur the way that those police officers said.”
Rotert said in the cases in question, it was clear that prosecutors could not take the word of the officers or the reports that they had generated as reliable evidence.
“These people really suffered at the hands of the Chicago Police Department, these officers, and the coverup that happened thereafter,” said attorney Joshua Tepfer. “There’s large numbers, but these are human beings, and they all suffered.”
Previously, Watts and one of his officers, Kallat Mohammed, were convicted of shaking down drug dealers who refused to make protection payments. Both went to prison.
Rotert was careful to say that prosecutors have primarily scrutinized cases involving those two officers. But residents of the former Wells project have long contended that others in Watts’ unit were involved in corrupt activities.
Last fall, shortly after the cases of 15 men were overturned in what was then the largest mass exoneration in Chicago history, over a dozen officers were pulled from the street amid an investigation of their potential involvement in the growing scandal.
And there are more cases in line. Attorneys have argued that the wrongdoing led to the wrongful convictions of hundreds of individuals.
“These cases are exactly the same modus operandi that was happening for a decade,” Tepfer said. “These Chicago Police officers led by a convicted felon named Ronald Watts were running their own drug line and shaking down anyone who got in their way, and planting cases on people routinely.”
Tepfer expects convictions of a dozen of his clients to be dismissed Monday. Attorney Joel Flaxman says he has another six, including one individual, Ricky Henderson, who was arrested four times and did a total of five years behind bars.
“They would pick him up again and frame him again,” Flaxman says. “No one was paying attention to very low-level drug arrests!”
While the officers were taken off the street and put on desk duty, many of them were also certified by the state’s attorney’s office as unusable as witnesses in criminal cases.
All of the cases involving the Watts crew centered on the now-demolished Ida B. Wells project.
“That’s where I grew up, was born and raised,” said Milton Delaney, who expects his drug conviction to be thrown out on Monday. “I was a familiar face.”
Delaney says he was merely sitting in his car when Watts ordered him taken into custody.
“Watts walked up, looked in and saw me, and said, ‘Take him to the station,’” Delaney said. “He looked at it like, ‘I’m going to get you for something before it’s over with!’”
Tepfer said he has dozens of similar individuals in line, waiting to be heard. And Rotert confirmed that the state’s attorney expects more cases to be overturned.
“There will be more,” he told NBC 5. “I can’t give you a timetable nor can I give you any particular numbers, but I can say that progress has been made and continues to be made, but there will be more cases."